At the University of Nebraska-Omaha, something unique has been built over the last couple years.
UNO’s athletic director, men’s basketball head coach and women’s basketball head coach are all Black. Women’s basketball coach Carrie Banks was hired in 2020, Athletic Director Adrian Dowell in November 2021 and men’s basketball coach Chris Crutchfield in March of this year.
Outside of HBCUs, this is a rare situation to find. Only 12% of NCAA athletic directors and 9.5% of head coaches are Black. At the Division I level, those numbers jump to 17% and 13%, respectively, but that’s still a lower mark than the 20% of Division I student-athletes who are Black.
It stands out even more in Nebraska. The state’s most prominent university in athletics, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has never had a Black head coach or athletic director.
That’s not the case for Creighton, the other of the three Division I colleges in the state. The Bluejays have historically had multiple Black head coaches along with hiring Marcus Blossom, a Black man, as athletic director last fall, but currently don’t have any Black coaches.
Dowell is well-aware of how rare the diversity in the university’s leadership is. So much so that when I first mention the athletic department’s leadership in our interview, he jumps in to point out that UNO’s chancellor, Joanne Li, is a woman of color.
“That’s when you really get thin there,” he said with a laugh.
Dowell also made clear that this group ended up together not because of how they look, but because they were highly qualified. None of them were even hired by the same person, and Dowell was confident in the résumés of Crutchfield and Banks.
Still, he said that the representation in UNO’s leadership makes an impact.
“It sends a powerful message to our university system, the community we’re in and also sends a powerful message to the industry we’re in too, to have people who come from our backgrounds be in the positions we are,” he said. “But ultimately the most powerful message we will also be able to send is hopefully the success that’s tied to it.”
Of the three in the athletic department, Banks was the first to arrive in Omaha in April 2020.
At the time, she was the only Black head coach at any of the state’s three Division I universities. Black women also make up an even lower portion of head coaches. In women’s Division I sports, 5% of head coaches are Black women, and that number is 1% in men’s sports.
Banks sees her position as important, especially as almost a third of NCAA women’s basketball players are Black.
“Having that visibility for other people who want to be at the top of this profession, I think it’s very important,” Banks said. “We are in a sport where there’s a heavy African American female population of student athletes. So I think it’s important too, that they see somebody who looks like them, that is leading them, and not just as the assistant coach, kind of the voice behind the voice, but somebody that actually has been given the responsibility of leading.”
She’s using that leadership to try and help the team to success. In her first season, the Mavericks went 7-13, but finished strong by reaching the program’s first ever Summit League Championship game despite being the eighth seed in the conference tournament.
This last season, they went 7-19, which Banks attributed partly to the team’s inexperience. She still sees her team moving forward, which is the same way she perceives the athletic department’s progress in the last couple years.
“I think everything is just moving in the right direction, I think this is a very special place,” she said. “So, you need great people that just have an eye for where this place can go and I really, truly believe that we have that here.”
When Dowell was hired, finding those people Banks mentioned was one of his first major tasks. Then-men’s basketball coach Derrin Hansen was fired in March. In the hiring search, Dowell prioritized forming a diverse candidate pool.
He said that intentionality is important in hiring processes. They can’t just sit back and wait for applications to come in, but rather “be proactive” in recruitment.
That initiative led UNO to Chris Crutchfield, who Dowell said stood out “by far.”
Crutchfield, a former two-sport athlete and then assistant coach at UNO, most recently was an assistant at Oregon before rejoining the Mavericks.
He said he’s never seen himself as a Black head coach, rather than just a head coach. But Crutchfield acknowledged that his position has been looked at through the lens of race historically, and the playing field in the industry has been uneven.
He sees that things have changed for the better from when he first got into coaching in the early 1990s. Crutchfield recalled sitting in a meeting for Black coaches at a coaches convention in New York near the start of his career. He said he’d be “lucky” to say there were 10 African-American coaches within major conferences at the time.
Still, that meeting gave him hope for the future. Legends like the late John Thompson and John Chaney, along with current Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton were in attendance.
“As a young coach, it gave me confidence that there is the opportunity for you in this profession to move up,” Crutchfield said. “Everybody wants to one day become a Division I head coach, or just to have your own program… you all want that opportunity to be able to kind of show that you can run it.”
He added that it often can take a longer time for Black coaches to reach that level compared to their white counterparts. Crutchfield has experienced that climb firsthand, having coached for more than 20 years.
This is his first Division I head coaching job, despite serving as associate head coach for eight years at Oklahoma. During that span, the Sooners made the NCAA Tournament six times, including a Final Four appearance. Crutchfield helped recruit and develop star players like Trae Young and Buddy Hield.
His only head coaching jobs came at Tyler Junior College from 1999-2001 and at East Central University in 2020–21. At the latter program, he coached two of his sons.
Through this long road, Crutchfield said his patience, hard work and faith kept him going.
“There was a lot of frustrating moments, of course, interviewing for a bunch of jobs and not getting any but like I tell people, you just keep chopping the wood,” Crutchfield said. “You just can’t cheat, you can’t quit. You can’t give into it. You just keep chopping the wood and you keep chopping the wood and eventually, the tree’s gonna fall down.”
Banks and Dowell also have experience with what that process is like, both having amassed over a decade of experience in their respective fields before being hired at UNO.
Crutchfield sees the representation at the university as evidence of its commitment to diversity and inclusion.
“Our leadership here and our administration understand what diversity and inclusion means. A lot of people speak it, a lot of people talk about it,” he said. “Our leadership started when our chancellor, they kind of put their money where their mouth is, and made some major hires, put people in leadership positions of color. And that’s what I see, that our administration gets it.”
With everyone in the building now, Dowell said both Crutchfield and Banks are doing a great job, especially as the department manages the ever-changing world of college sports. He said that because of the diversity within UNO’s leadership, they are especially prepared to adapt.
“We’re making informed decisions with individuals from different backgrounds and different skill sets,” Dowell said. “And because of that, I am certainly confident that we’ll be able to navigate any changes this industry throws at us.”